The question you shouldn’t be asking: where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Have you either asked or received this question lately: “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

If so, you’ve probably envisioned the perfect scenario: the asker invites you to share what your life plan is for the next 5 years and you enthusiastically respond with a clearly articulated vision of what a bright future looks like. You then dazzle them with an overarching plan of how you will achieve your goals including milestones and a timeline.

For many, the goal in asking, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, is to understand someone’s passions, motivations and what they perceive their life trajectory to be.

While asking someone, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” may seem well-intentioned and harmless, it’s mistakenly thought to be a good measure of how well someone can define their own passions, motivations and life plan.

So, in this article, I want to consider why society should ditch the “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question in favor of something different (and possibly better!).

Why you should stop asking “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

Let’s put this in a professional context for illustrative purposes.  Say a candidate is interviewing for a product analyst position at a tech company. The dreaded, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question is posed to the candidate and the candidate could respond in a couple of ways:

  1. “Once I master this product analyst position, I’ll move up to middle management and then eventually work my way into a senior leadership role”

or

  1. “I believe I’d be a great asset to your company as a product analyst for X, Y, Z reasons and here are A, B, C ideas I have for making an immediate and longer-term impact. In 5 years, I want to take the knowledge and experience I’ve gained and start up my own business in the travel & tourism industry and here’s why…”

Sure, there could be a variety of other responses, but what answer do you think is more likely to give- 1 or 2? I’m guessing 2!

To clarify, there is nothing at all wrong with communicating your desire to grow with a company and stay in the same functional area, but from my observations and own experiences, response number 2 is rare!

Why is that?

I hypothesize that many people are afraid to share what’s really on their mind out of fear – fear of being exposed, fear of judgment, fear of not getting the job, etc.

Does the candidate’s honesty that he envisions eventually leaving the company and the industry show less commitment to the organization? Does the candidate become less qualified, less impactful and less of a cultural fit, for instance? I think not!

Still not convinced?

If you don’t plan on giving up asking, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, be mindful of the following:

1. It’s likely people will give you the safe, highly self-edited answer

2. Even if a person gives you an answer that suggests they want to stay with the company for the long haul and will work their way up to a management role, nothing guarantees that they will stay (check the frequency with which people switch jobs – it’s high!)

3. It’s unrealistic to expect all candidates should want a linear career path that fits “nice and neat” into the traditional box and often times asking the question forces people into that box

4. The person that doesn’t give you the conventional answer could very likely be the best person for the job

Challenge your own motivations for asking the question: “why am I asking the candidate to share their 5 year plan with me?” and “what information am I hoping to gain from the candidate?”.

What you should ask instead

Here’s one suggestion: “what are you most curious about or interested in? How do you see this curiosity or interest influencing your life right now and in the coming years?”

Yes, there’s a semantical difference. It’s more effective in uncovering someone’s true passions, motivations and life trajectory because:

1.It gives people permission to be authentic about what really excites them. Because you’re asking about curiosities and interests, the tone is much less stiff so it’s likely the answer you’ll receive will be much less stiff

2. It’s realistic in acknowledging change. People change and life happens. I am by no means saying planning is a bad thing – I feel quite the opposite about it, but typically the way the 5 year plan question is phrased seems very inflexible

3. It allows people to express multiple interests and that’s ok! Being an expert in a particular field is great, but often times, the jack-of-all trades professional persona is mistakenly viewed as “too flighty” or “indecisive” – which in many cases, couldn’t be further from the truth
What are your suggestions? Is there a better way to approach this discussion?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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